As any Top Gear Philippines reader can attest, daily traffic gridlock is a mind-numbing, soul-sucking experience that wastes so many man-hours, costs thousands of pesos in wasted fuel, and contributes to air and noise pollution. Add the stress of building a new business and we have a wonderful cocktail of toxicity. There was a point when my startup business was nearing completion (that would be the most stressful phase, right?) when I half-seriously thought it wouldn't be a bad thing if I just suddenly keeled over and died in the driver seat.
At some point, when I had gained 10 pounds and gone back to my old smoking habit, and was on the verge of drinking my troubles away, I decided to ride my bike to work. I'd been toying with the idea of getting a scooter and was close to pulling the trigger on a Vespa (lovely!). Then I remembered I ran a bike café, and it would look pretty stupid if I tried to sell bikes while I myself rode a scooter, so pedal to work I did.
You know what? I love it. I really do. Getting up early to beat most of the morning rush-hour traffic is a good motivator, and spinning along the side streets gives me time to chew on the many things an entrepreneur must tackle. It's 16km from our house to the shop, and my fastest time yet was all of 44 minutes. No riding through red lights. No close calls. No regrets, other than sometimes I wish my cycling jersey and shorts would match. Or that I wore gloves so I'd have something to wipe the morning snot with. But it's all good, and when I get to the shop, I feel absolutely ready to take on the world. I can't say I've ever felt that way on a simple commute in my car.
Several studies have pointed out the positive benefits that a simple bike ride brings to a rider, and I'm sure many of you bike-riding readers will agree with this. It boosts blood circulation, gets the endorphins going, keeps the muscles supple, etc.
At present, I ride to work on my car's coding day, but I'm looking at my schedule to see what other days I can ride to and from work. You see, as much as I love to drive, the simple truth is that spending a good chunk of the day in gridlock is not my idea of an enjoyable drive. It's really a waste of a good machine, as even a humble Mitsubishi Mirage should be given the chance to stretch its legs every once in a while.
Now, some of you may be thinking: How the heck can I do this and expect to live long and prosper? You see those gory images of cyclists struck down via social media and think: "Oh sh*t, no way I'm gonna do that, so why bother?" Well, here is my philosophy: When it's your time, then it's your time.
Having said that, you need to adopt a defensive, proactive mentality any time you put a leg over your bike and give your car a breather. Here are some useful tips the prospective bike commuter can practice to have fun, save money, and arrive alive.
1. It's all down to visibility, awareness and agility. Visibility is doing everything possible short of wearing screaming neon-orange clothing to ensure motorists and pedestrians can see you. Awareness is frequently looking up the road so you can plan your moves, and occasionally checking behind to watch out for trouble. "Check Six" every time you need to change lanes. Agility is the mental and physical ability to make split-second decisions that can really save your life. If a jeep suddenly stops in front of you, do you (a) swerve left, (b) swerve right or (c) jam on the brakes and pray you don't catapult into the damn jeep? Things like that.
2. Avoid dark clothing. Always use a rear blinker light even in broad daylight, and (obviously) use a headlamp at night. I've found that blinkers tend to attract attention, helping motorists to notice that I'm on the road so they'll give me a foot or two of wiggle room when they pass.
3. Adopt a high-cadence pedaling style with occasional out-of-saddle time. The human eye is drawn to movement. Every busy road has a certain rhythm of movement. If your cadence is 90+ and you occasionally get out of the saddle, it's a high-frequency technique that catches attention just like blinkers, as opposed to a lazy cadence that can become invisible in the background chaos. Aside from the increased visibility, high cadence means you're in a low enough gear so you can quickly accelerate and get out of trouble.
4. Respect road rules and regulations. That means yield at intersections, stop at red lights, and stay in the bike lane when it's available. When it's not, stay on the right side so as not to impede the flow of faster traffic. If you need to overtake a slower vehicle or parked car, check your six, signal with your hand that you need to pass, and make it quick!
5. Stay about 4ft to 5ft from the gutter. That's to keep away from debris that can puncture your tire. This also signals to motorists that you are occupying the lane, so they must consciously overtake you as opposed to just blowing by you if you were at the gutter.
6. Be aware of motorist's blind spots and "door zones." Or the left- and right-rear sides that their mirrors don't cover, and around 2ft from the doors. Steer clear whenever possible, but if that's not doable, make sure you're going slow enough that you can immediately stop if a door suddenly opens or the driver decides to swerve.
7. Yield to faster traffic. Just because you're entitled to your own space on the road doesn't mean you can hog a tight two-lane road. If there's a clear road ahead and there are vehicles behind you, give a little room for them to pass (without riding into the gutter) so you don't hold them up. Signal with your left hand that it's safe to overtake, too. Motorists appreciate that courtesy.
8. Do practice your handling skills. Fast descents, trackstanding, lane-filtering and one-hand/no-hands riding are all vital skills that will help keep you safe.
9. Assume that everyone else is either stupid or can't see you. Sometimes, they may even be homicidal. Or suicidal. Cars will suddenly turn in front of you. Jeepneys will stop. Motorbike riders will buzz you. Jaywalkers will turn themselves into human pylons. So I'm always alert when I'm on my bike.
10. Practice road courtesy. Learn to give way at intersections when faster vehicles have already established their move. Wave a "thank you" when motorists give you some space. Simple courtesies go a long way in making a bike commute more fun and sustainable.